Recognize that Little Things Add Up
Heather O'Neill, president of Advanced Energy Economy, a clean-energy business association with a staff of 40 based in Washington, D.C., found that many small, deliberate steps have helped her organization thrive through challenging times.
Most of the team was already working remotely when COVID-19 hit, so "our organizational culture didn't center on the physical office," O'Neill says. "We were already using Zoom and Slack."
For many employees, it was their home life that changed the most. Advocacy staff that was accustomed to traveling to state capitals, for example, had to adapt to performing education and advocacy work from home, often while balancing new demands such as supervising children during the workday and coping with isolation.
At the start of the crisis, the association gave every employee a week of paid leave to prepare for their new everyday realities. These days, O'Neill worries more about burnout, since working at home has made it harder to draw a bright line between work and home.
"It's incredibly important to step away and not be connected all the time," O'Neill says. She has led by example: She took time off to renew and refresh, and is vocal about the need to do so, even sharing vacation photos with her staff upon her return.
Don't Forget to Have Fun
The association has supported employees and helped them to persevere by being flexible and maintaining a sense of fun, O'Neill says. The mindset around the workday quickly loosened. "If they need to take chunks of time off and do work at odd times, that's OK," she says.
She also instituted regular communications to keep people feeling connected. Every week, Advanced Energy Economy publishes a "feel-good Friday" e-mail that lets employees share what they're doing to rejuvenate.
But a steady diet of isolation and Zoom meetings can get to even the most resilient employees, O'Neill says. She recently noticed an uptick in people snapping at each other. In response, she gave each employee a $50 wellness credit to use on anything that would buck them up, excluding alcohol. "It's not a life-changing amount, but people found the gesture meaningful," she says. One employee used the funds to create an indoor seed garden, another did an online tea tasting, and still another signed up for yoga online.
The association has encouraged team members to relax and play games during virtual lunches. And when the March Madness college basketball tournament was shut down in 2020, the organization's leaders declared Starch Madness instead, as employees went toe-to-toe over who had the best potato recipes, complete with bracket sheets to track the leaders. "People are still talking about it," O'Neill says.
And at a time when its members can't meet in person, the association has found a way to provide networking opportunities virtually. At the organization's quarterly business meetings, staff open the Zoom line 15 minutes early to give members a chance to mingle and catch up.
Where's the evidence that efforts to keep employees resilient and positive are working? Strong employee retention is one proof point, O'Neill says. Advanced Energy Economy also conducted a survey to ask employees what was and wasn't working. "They wanted us to keep that feel-good Friday rhythm," she says. "And they appreciated our emphasis on their safety."
When it comes to fostering resilience, the crisis has shown that "there isn't a silver bullet," O'Neill says. "It's about having a sense of humor and being flexible."
Shift Gears When Routines Break Down
During periods of uncertainty and crisis, established ways of getting things done—everything from completing time sheets to planning for an acquisition—can break down, according to researchers Fernando F. Suarez and Juan S. Montes. The authors examined resilience through the lens of a 41-day expedition to climb the most remote side of Mount Everest, which Montes was part of in 1992.
The two professors, who are faculty members of the business school at Northeastern University and the management school at Boston College, respectively, wrote in the November/December 2020 issue of Harvard Business Review that resilient organizations strive to move fluidly between the following distinct modes of operating: They can adhere to established protocols, or scripted routines; they can follow rules of thumb; they can improvise; or they can do some of each.
Organizational routines are effective when work is predictable, they wrote. But rules of thumb, such as investing only in projects that provide a specified minimum return on investment, can help speed up processes and decision-making in less predictable times. And improvisation—which they defined as "spontaneous, creative efforts to address an opportunity or a problem," such as shifting from automated to manual processes in a crisis—kicks in when regular routines break down.
"What happened [in 2020] has made it crystal clear that you cannot rely on stable environments and therefore routines forever," Suarez says. "There are some moments you really have to respond fast to things you never thought you'd have to face."
Such change is not unprecedented, he adds, pointing to technology disruptions that toppled venerable brands such as Nokia and BlackBerry. "What's different now is the speed of change." As organizations face new challenges such as the impact of climate change, "resilience will become a lot more important," he says.
Organizations can prepare for disruption, Suarez says, by questioning the assumptions behind routines and evaluating how to operate if the assumptions didn't hold. For example, which type of decisions do organizations assume will have to be made by high-level managers, and how would that change in a crisis?
Organizations can also practice doing more with less, cross-train to deepen knowledge of how other areas function and learn to give up control by recognizing when it's time to delegate decision-making authority to people on the front lines, Suarez says.
Jack Kenny, CEO of Cincinnati-based Meridian Bioscience, says his company has had to be flexible and sensitive as it navigates a business transformation during the pandemic. Its two key operations, life sciences and diagnostics, face very different challenges and opportunities.
"I have one business that's running a marathon and another that's running a sprint," Kenny says.
The diagnostics operation, which produces human diagnostics test kits, is Meridian's legacy business, dating back 43 years. It has traditionally generated the lion's share of the company's profits and cash. But the company underinvested in research and development in order to pay out dividends, Kenny says. That took a toll by limiting the number of new diagnostics products Meridian could bring to market, he says. Under his watch, the dividend has been cut in order to plow funds into R&D.
On the other hand, Meridian's life sciences business has enjoyed robust growth in recent years, with revenues doubling between 2019 and 2020 and surpassing the diagnostics business for the first time. The life sciences operation makes key components used in other manufacturers' medical tests, such as antigens, antibodies and reagent solutions.
The diagnostics operation has pursued business opportunities presented by COVID-19 and is working on the rapid development of a molecular diagnostics test for the virus. But it "can't run after every red balloon," Kenny says, because its focus remains on investing and repositioning itself for sustainable long-term growth.
The life sciences business, however, has been able to "act faster and mobilize" and is building long-term customer relationships out of the upheaval of the pandemic.
Kenny says the key to resilience is adaptability. It helped that Meridian was striving to instill a change mindset across the organization one to two years before the pandemic struck, he says.
"When everyone is comfortable, nobody wants to do the tough things you have to do," he notes. "It's like working out. You don't want to do it, but you have to make yourself do it."
Take Stock and Cooperate
Kenny believes that tough times can galvanize a team. "The best-performing teams take shape when everything hasn't gone well," he says. In resilient organizations, he adds, leaders learn to step back when taking stock of a problem, and, instead of pointing fingers, determine how to overcome challenges.
"We can have a frank discussion in a room by ourselves and be real," Kenny says, "but when we leave that room with a decision, there is alignment. Nobody is saying, 'Well, Jack wanted to do this.' "
Nathanson of The Colony Group also points to cooperation as an underpinning of resilience. "We are a company that puts super teams before superstars," he says. He tries to foster a culture that recognizes and rewards cooperative values such as teamwork and being supportive of colleagues. This approach helps to tamp down internal competition, which he sees as distracting and counterproductive.
Nathanson professes that he's fascinated by how his clients have navigated obstacles and life-altering events, and what drives them to succeed. So in between running a large asset management company and practicing martial arts for relaxation and strength, Nathanson hosts a biweekly podcast called Seeking the Extraordinary, in which he chats with guests about how they overcome adversity and harness creativity to achieve extraordinary outcomes—and stay resilient.
Debra Cope is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area.
SHRM provides advice and resources to help business leaders build resilience for themselves and their organizations.